Burning Coals on their Heads (Romans 12)

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Burning Coals on their Heads (Romans 12)

30 January 2024 Hits:1786

There’s a fascinating verse in Romans chapter 12 that, at first glance, looks like permission to inflict pain on the people we don’t like: “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Paul’s teaching in Romans 12 is about showing kindness to those who don’t like us (or we don’t like, or both). The apostle quotes Proverbs 25:21-22, If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.

It appears to read: be nice to your enemies and cause them pain! So, what’s the deal with the burning coals? How should we understand what the Bible is teaching us here? I have found three explanations:

Remorse

In the ancient world, people would carry a tray of burning coals on their heads as a sign of repentance. The scriptures speak of people expressing sorrow by wearing sackcloth and ashes. Consider Mordecai, who, upon learning of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.

Jesus reprimanded two cities, Chorazin and Bethsaida, for their hard-heartedness towards his ministry: Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. Bethsaida was the hometown of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip. Imagine hearing Jesus’ words of rebuke about your birthplace.

So, the explanation is that showing kindness to your enemy may open the door for them to repent and change how they behave towards you. And that certainly can happen.

Judgment

The second understanding of the burning coals symbolises a life of nonviolence and allowing God’s judgement to operate. The context certainly supports that understanding. The previous verse says: Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. In other words, be kind to your enemy and allow God to judge them.

In this interpretation, the burning coals symbolise God’s judgment.

Kindness

In the third explanation, the burning coals are a sign of kindness, not judgment, and I agree. Paul encourages people to act kindly to their enemies.

In ancient times, people would cook their meals over a fire, as in many parts of the world today. If the fire went cold, the woman of the household would put an earthen jar on her head, walk to their neighbour’s house, and ask for hot coals.

Imagine your enemy coming to your door and asking for hot coals from the fire. Our natural inclination would be to refuse them. And that’s Paul’s point for followers of Jesus. Live in such a way that does better than expressing your typical feelings. If your enemy is in need and you have the opportunity to be kind, then be kind. If their fire’s gone out, give them hot coals to carry home on their head.

Jesus’ Teaching

In Romans 12, Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching from his sermon on the Mount:

  • Give to the one who asks you.
  • Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
  • Love your enemies.
  • Pray for those who persecute you.
  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Paul agrees:

  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • If possible, as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

The last statement is significant because sometimes, living at peace with someone is impossible. You should not feel duty-bound in such circumstances.

Jesus’ way is never passive or idle. Jesus was an activist, not a passivist. But the activism he supported was showing practical kindness to others, even our enemies.

We could summarise Paul’s teaching here by this statement: The best way to destroy an enemy is to turn them into a friend.

Rob Buckingham

Senior Minister

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